The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors Tuesday voted unanimously to consider options for the acquisition of the Lehigh Cement Plant and Quarry property in unincorporated Cupertino.
The acquisition of the property, either from a willing seller or by use of eminent domain, would accelerate the closure and restoration of the property, and allow for a more community-focused consideration of how the land should be used in the future, according to a statement from Supervisor Joe Simitian, who sponsored the action.
The cement plant and quarry are part of the Lehigh property, which encompasses 3,510 acres, 2,656 of which are in unincorporated Santa Clara County. The remaining land is within the cities of Cupertino and Palo Alto.
The county has land-use oversight over the quarry where activities take place pursuant to a reclamation plan approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2012, and by a vested rights decision made by the board in 2011.
At Simitian’s behest, the board directed the county to report within 90 days on the options for the acquisition and financing of the Lehigh property, along with a discussion of advantages or disadvantages associated with the various financing options.
“We have an opportunity to sit down at the table and say let’s chart a future that ultimately on some kind of a timeline involves the cessation of operations there and public acquisition,” said Simitian, who represents Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Cupertino, and other cities near the site.
Although the hills outside the City of Cupertino have been mined for limestone since the early 1900s, and the Lehigh cement plant has been operational since 1939, this heavy industry is now located adjacent to residential neighborhoods, creating ongoing environmental, health, and safety challenges.
Now is the time to envision and consider other possibilities that are both in the interest of the public and fair to the property owner, said Simitian. He cited these reasons:
- Numerous complaints and violations have been reported at the site, suggesting incompatibility of uses;
- There is also a likelihood that Lehigh will submit a new or revised application for continued and expanded activity at the site;
- The recent restoration of the former Dumbarton Quarry in the East Bay into a park and camping facility demonstrates that reclamation and conversion of such a site can be accomplished.
“We know this is doable,” said Simitian in a statement. “Just within the last year or so, we’ve seen the Dumbarton Quarry transform in a way that’s extraordinary. It, too, was once a great, big hole in the ground. And today, it is providing affordable recreation for working- and middle-class folks. There’s a future here we can and should chart for the Lehigh site.”
There have been repeated calls for closure over the years, but such proposals faced resistance from Lehigh’s owners, who have a financial interest in maintaining operations at the site.
“In making this proposal I am mindful of the fact that our County anticipates the possibility of an application to amend the current Reclamation Plan,” said Simitian. In 2019, Lehigh submitted such application, but its review has been put on hold, first because funds to process the application were not forthcoming, and more recently because Lehigh has indicated it plans to revise the application.
Concerned that a fragmented regulatory system has resulted in the lack of transparency that exists around Lehigh’s operations, last month Simitian directed county staff to produce a 10-year record of violations involving Lehigh Cement Plant and Quarry going back to 2012 with the intent to provide more transparency and help clarify whether violations involving Lehigh’s facilities necessitate regulatory and/or legal action.
Simitian’s proposal calling for county acquisition got an immediate boost in the form of a joint press release by the mayors of Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Cupertino.
"Supervisor Simitian’s referral recognizes that dramatic changes in the County over the last 80 years, including increased understandings of the negative health impacts of the mining and the development of residential communities near the plant, warrant a reevaluation of the plant’s continued operation,” the mayors stated in their joint release. “His referral would allow the county and West Valley cities to consider how to transition to new land uses that would benefit the surrounding communities.”
Also going on the record in support of County acquisition were: Operating Engineers Local 3; Teamsters Local 853; Sierra Club; Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District; Guadalupe River Park Conservancy; Green Foothills; Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society; Greenbelt Alliance; South Bay Clean Creeks Coalition; Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area; Mothers Out Front Silicon Valley; CLEAN South Bay; California Native Plant Society Santa Clara Valley Chapter; and Grassroots Ecology.
“Since the 1930s, when what is now the Lehigh quarry and cement plant opened, generations of residents have lost local habitat, experienced air and dust pollution, and lived with polluted water runoff from the property,” said Brian Schmidt, Legislative Advocacy Director at Green Foothills. “We welcome the rare opportunity to reverse this environmental destruction."
A community meeting will be held virtually on March 2 from 6:30 to 8:30pm to provide an update on the cement plant and quarry. Click here to register.